How to handle achievement anxiety
Have you ever been asked the question- what do you want to be when you grow up? Was there a time in your life that this question made you feel nervous?
Many of us feel like we should have a pretty good idea about what we want to do in our careers, or perhaps be more successful than we are. Questions like this can spark a myriad of different anxieties about our own achievements, and can lead to career anxieties. Are we doing too much? Not enough? Are we where we are supposed to be?
When it comes to our careers, we tend to have little in terms of way of judging our own abilities frequently and reliably. We have feedback from our superiors, but most of us tend to be around our colleagues for longer periods, which can lead to us comparing our own abilities to the people around us. It may not come from a place of resentment but can lead to some less than desirable feelings when things don’t go our way. The aim of this guide is to bring discussion about these feelings forward and make it easier to pinpoint what concepts can actually do us good.
We live in a quiet meritocracy- we believe that those of us that work hard can achieve what we want. We see this in media and school from a very young age. Characters in films surpass people that have been working in an area for decades after weeks of focus and practice, providing new and creative ways to tackle age-old problems. We all want to be that person who makes a difference. No one wants to be just another head in the crowd. It’s a thought that makes our guts drop in the initial stages of a career. Have we made a mistake?
The more insidious side to the whole work hard and receive great things mentality is that it essentially justifies the idea that those who do not succeed have not worked hard enough, and those who remain on the lower rungs of employment are not only not working hard enough, but also deserve to be on a lower rung than others. There are a million and one reasons why someone may not be able to work the way they want, and many of these are completely out of our control. Remembering that not all failings are due to personal faults, and that merit does not always equate to self-worth is an incredibly important point to remember.
It doesn’t even have to be those we work with- one of the biggest and most difficult points of comparison to digest is those closest to us- our friends and relatives, or those we went to school with.
We are so used to seeing the worst of people on social media- we are constantly bombarded with the ways that “important” people have spectacularly failed, exactly what they did and why. Failure becomes a public spectacle that is hard to take your eyes away from.
Alain de Botton theorises that this constant comparison is why we are so drawn to nature because it allows us to take a break from the “human anthill”- our heroes and points of inspiration are all human, and it’s all we see. Sometimes a formless force can take our minds away from our usual concerns and let us exist in the moment for a little while. It can be useful to remember just how much bigger the world is than us, as it can make those anxieties feel a little less catastrophic than they once did.
Fear for the future
Imposter syndrome is a huge problem we all deal with in moments of stress. Even when we do manage to reach our goals and achieve great things, we may feel that we don’t actually deserve it. Many of us worry that there has been some kind of mistake- that we blundered our way into a good thing and that we aren’t actually in any way better than those around us.
When those around us are in a good position we assume they have something the others don’t that makes them more equipped for the role- be it skill or intelligence or just better know-how. When the situation is reversed and we are given praise and accolades for our achievements, we feel like exactly the same person that we were beforehand- which can be a little hard to come to terms with. The pedestal we put others on gives us a pretty skewed view of what achievement looks like- yet we are all people until we achieve something at the end of the day, and continue to be the same people we were after the fact.
Even if we manage to achieve great things, we are still equally capable of doing less well in the future. And this should not fill us with fear, because every moment that we are doing things in any capacity, we are learning. You will improve no matter if you succeed or fail, what matters is that you have the drive to continue to improve.
This goes double for if you actually find enjoyment and fulfillment in whatever you do- one of the biggest worries we all have is you pursuing what you love is that you may find yourself falling out of love. We face anxiety over our future careers because it’s hard to make decisions with such finality- we are supposed to just know, right?
Ultimately we need to understand that the way we think about our careers is rather harmful to us. It’s hard to pull ourselves away from it because we are exposed to these ideas incredibly frequently. Our worth is equated with our numbers- what we earn and for how long, what we do, and with who. We use this information to mentally calculate the levels of success of those around us, and make our comparisons accordingly. Ultimately we need to start to look inward to decide what defines our sense of self-worth. If you find your work rewarding and can find fulfillment in what you do, then focusing on this can be a good way to understand what’s important.
Not being afraid to fail is a big deal, and it’s a really hard thing to unlearn. Judgement influences many of the decisions we make and can take us down avenues we may not have considered otherwise. Following a good feeling may not always be entirely realistic- we cannot survive on our ideals alone, but we can begin to pick apart what it is we want and what we think we need.